I would not always
recommend watching the background feature before the full opera
to everyone, but in respect of the present production of Norma
it is some help in orientating you to what is going on.
English conductor Julian Reynolds, who is sensitive to Bellini’s
demands in performance, opines that an opera house needs a special
reason to mount the work, given its demands upon soloists. That
Romanian-born soprano Nelly Miricioiu agreed to sing the title
role proved reason enough for De Nederlandse Opera, where she
has established a loyal following for her portrayals of the
core bel canto roles.
There are several
key points to be made about this Norma that set it apart
from others one might have encountered. First, Reynolds employs
a chamber orchestra of the size Bellini asked for at the work’s
La Scala Milan premiere. Second, he restores passages of the
score that are commonly cut – to the average listener some may
be obvious, some less so. These factors also impact upon the
singing heard in the production itself. Reynolds encourages
a move away from the statuesque style of bel canto delivery
employed by the likes of Joan Sutherland, Maria Callas or Montserrat
Caballé to something that betrays more of the human emotion
behind the words and action.
The staging concept
employed by Guy Joosten and his team is likely to be a major
departure from what many viewers will have experienced in the
past. The opera is treated almost as a work within a work, the
staging is built on the concept of mounting an opera: Norma
is the prima donna assoluta, Adalgisa cast as the seconda donna,
Pollione as the impresario, etc. Some may choose to read further
into this and identify Norma with Callas, for example. Though
the production might encourage this, it is a temptation I felt
happy to resist as it adds nothing to ones understanding of
the opera that is hinted at in libretto or music.
We are not really
told in the background feature why Nelly Miricioiu withdrew
from the production or why Lucia Aliberti, who was “in the wings”
ready to cover the role did not end up taking it on either.
The fact is though that Armenian soprano Hasmik Papian stepped
into the breach, much to her credit. Her delivery of the part
might not be as vocally individual as Miricioiu’s or Callas’;
it tends to be more of the kind of stand and deliver type that
the production tried to move away from, but faced with a third
Norma no doubt the production team felt fortunate to have one
at all. The role has become a core part of Papian’s repertoire,
and she does have many of the attributes a singer needs to carry
it off respectably: vocal flexibility, a good sense of bel canto
line, evenness of tone throughout the range and the staying
power to survive the demanding length of the opera.
a Greek soprano with a lowish mezzo extension to her voice,
takes on the role of Adagisa in more than competent fashion.
She complements Papian well vocally and is an accomplished stage
actress, though occasionally you may get the feeling she is
restrained somewhat by the production itself. The duet “Mira,
O Norma”, rather like “Casta Diva”, affect yet do not bring
a tingle to my spine as other performances continue to do after
years in their company.
Hugh Smith is a
seasoned Pollione; and veers towards the throaty, stand and
deliver type of bel canto delivery. Despite wanting to make
more of the part than purely being the Roman Proconsul, Joosten
is thwarted somewhat by Jorge Jara’s traditional armour costumes.
Oroveso and Flavio are solidly sung roles.
For all the attempts
to inject something new and different into the work, the totality
does not quite come together convincingly enough. Maybe it’s
a result of the production going through two Normas too many.
Equally, maybe it take more than a single production to convince
me that a credible alternative to traditional bel canto style
performances can hold its own in direct comparison. For me,
the ghost of Callas is hard to shift – be it in her EMI studio
recordings from 1954 and 1960 or her live performances of the
On DVD though, Montserrat
Caballé is the High Priestess above them all. Her performance
alongside Jon Vickers and Josephine Veasey on the Hardy Classic
Video label is breath-taking for its assurance and insight into
the heart of the role. Such nights of greatness do not often happen,
so one is all the more grateful for its preservation on DVD.